Reflections this Earth Day

DWT's CEO, Harry Barton, offers a personal, reflective piece this Earth Day.

As we sat outside earlier this week in a dreamy Devon sunset, watching clouds of tiny insects dance a few feet above the lawn, two things dawned on me.  The first was that I had never heard such loud and varied bird song.  Garden warbler, song thrush, blackbird, chiff chaff and a host of others were pouring out a chorus that seemed to echo up and down the valley, where the sudden explosion of new life was illuminating streaks of woodland in various shades of emerald.  Was it my imagination, or is this the best it’s ever been in my lifetime? 

The second was how unequally we are all experiencing this lockdown.  For me it’s little more than an inconvenience.  I have a nice garden and the open moorland is within cycling or running distance from the house.  I can enjoy the quiet of the lanes, the clearer air, the wildflowers taking advantage of the lack of traffic and reclaiming the verges normally ground down by a thousand car tyres.  I have become more adventurous, making a rule for myself to explore footpaths and lanes I don’t normally venture down.  How different it would be if I had a small flat with no garden in a city with little usable green space.  I think of friends in Spain, unable to leave the immediate surroundings of their apartment block for well over a month now, and only allowed outside for a few minutes each day.


But the lockdown affects us in other ways too.  I miss meeting people in the flesh and I’m more than a little sick of staring at this computer screen, but I’m thriving in this extra time at home with my family.   From my window I can see the leaves unfolding and the different colours in the garden.  Yesterday I was struck by the stunning impact of beech trees coming into leaf.  It was as if a green blizzard had descended on the wood, the giant flakes hanging to the finer branches in the lower canopy.  One moment in a slow-motion explosion of buds, captured in a frozen frame.  Last year I’d probably have missed this amazing spectacle as I would have been sitting behind a desk with knitted eyebrows.

It was very different for my old friend Jo, who died tragically over the Easter weekend.  Jo was a larger than life character in every way, eccentric, formidably intelligent, physically imposing.  He thought nothing of taking to the waves on a freezing January day, or making a split second decision to cycle into the woods and sleep outside on his own in the hope of encountering some nocturnal wildlife.  A quarter of century ago, when we were at college together, a group of us were searching for rare orchids in remote nature reserve, and then we saw Jo, who had hauled himself up some impossible looking tree, performing an equally impossible yoga pose while swaying precariously back and forth in its highest branches.


Photo credit, Simon Williams

Looking back, Jo was in many ways like an adventurous child who had never been infected by the stiltedness of adulthood.  He said the things the rest of us thought but were never quite brave enough to articulate.  He did dangerous things, swam in hazardous waters, disappeared off on his own without any plan or anyone else knowing.  He was unpredictable, a striking presence in the middle of any big social occasion but at heart a loner, the outdoors being his true home.  His behaviour reminds me how disconnected many of us have become from the natural world, how the responsibilities of adulthood have replaced the woods and wild with the inside of cars, offices and supermarkets, and the hum drum of routine. 

Jo was effortlessly hilarious and utterly memorable, but there was always a slight sense of something I never quite knew hiding behind his quizzical expressions and razor-sharp wit.  Perhaps that was the bit of him that led things to go so wrong in his later life.  A prodigious reader, he become increasingly worried about the state of the natural world.  He retreated into an ever more isolated existence, living alone in a small caravan.  He gradually distanced himself from former friends, myself included.  Whether it was the extra social isolation brought on by Covid 19 that finally pushed Jo over the edge we will never know, but it seems highly likely.  And as I wrestle with the guilt at not having made more effort to get back in touch with my old friend, I wonder how many more Jo’s there are out there, suffering in silence, their untimely deaths unaccounted for in official statistics. 

Covid 19 is having all sorts of impacts as well as the strain on our health services and the depressing effect on the economy which understandably dominate the news headlines.  There will be a time for looking at this whole chapter in more depth once the immediate health crisis is behind us.  Not least what enabled this dreadful disease to get such a foothold, and how it arose in the first place from the ongoing abuse of the natural world.  But for now, Jo’s tragedy makes me feel that we need to take what we can from this and embed some of the good that has undoubtedly emerged.

So here’s three things that I hope we can do.  First, we can look at our personal habits.  We can work from home more, travel less and spend more time in our local environment.  This will reduce traffic – our biggest cause of carbon emission in the UK – and bring so many other benefits to our way of life.  It should save us money too.  We can look at where we shop, favouring local produce wherever we can. And we can all make those extra investments in the space around us, whether it be to plant up our window boxes to encourage insects or dig a pond in our garden.

Bee on lavender

Jenna Lee

Second, we should place far more emphasis on the social bonds that hold us together.  We need to reach out to those who are isolated, using the natural environment to unite us.  This could be through practical work in our local green space, jogging in the park or just exploring somewhere different with a group of friends.  More than anything in recent decades, Covid19 has illustrated the importance of the outdoors to us all.  But Jo’s story is a reminder that our relationship with it is not always so simple.  Retreating alone into the wild suits some of us, but as another friend aptly reminded me, we are not all Thoreau.  We are social animals and we thrive in groups.  Perhaps we can use the great community spirit that has blossomed in recent weeks to improve many of our green spaces, especially in cities, so that the shocking inequality in our access to them can be lessened.

Finally, we should look at our national priorities.   The government has been using the term “Climate Emergency” for nearly a year now, but little has changed.  Whether you agree with government policy on Covid 19 or not, the health crisis brought about by this awful disease has shown how quickly radical transformation to society and economy can happen when we feel a direct threat.  Dealing with the climate and ecological crises should not lead to anything like a lockdown, but they will require equally bold decisions.  We need to refocus on them as soon as the current crisis is behind us, because time is not on our side.

As I take my daily exercise around the lanes of South Devon and marvel at the views in this glorious April weather, I’m struck by how little has actually changed in most of the landscape.  Ploughing, spraying and slurry spreading continue much as before.  What has changed is the pressures put upon the spaces in between – the hedges, the road verges, the parks.  This is where most wildlife now lives.  The last few weeks have shown that a change for the better in even a small proportion the landscape can make a big difference to wildlife and our enjoyment of it, and that should give us hope.  But surely we can be more ambitious and push forward the frontiers of wild space a little more.  How about doubling the area of Devon managed with the natural environment in mind?  That’s a big bold ask, but I believe it is perfectly possible if we use this amazing land of ours more efficiently and imaginatively.  In honour of Jo’s memory, I hope we do.